By Mike Steffanos
In our third installment of our season preview series we'll take a look at the position players.
Josh Thole is going to be the guy this year. As a hitter, he's somewhat of a throwback to guys I watched in the 70s and 80s. He chokes up, uses the whole field and occasionally will drive the right pitch. He's also willing to take a walk and limits his strikeouts.
After watching him last season and throughout spring training I like Thole's chances of holding his own. I think he might even surprise this year with a little more power than expected, somewhere around 10 HR with plenty of doubles. I really believe the key to getting the most out of him is to pair him with a good right-handed hitting catcher and giving Thole a good amount of days off over the year. He struggled last September (.235/.316/.306) and it seemed like he tired a bit.
Unfortunately, although I like Mike Nickeas as a defensive catcher, he's not going to be a guy who we'll want to see at bat very often while he's keeping a seat warm for Paulino. He had a solid year at AA Binghamton last season (.283/.403/.396), but his career minor league line (.239/.334/.346 over 7 seasons) does not predict any real offensive potential.
On the plus side, in recent years the Mets received some decent contributions from career minor league catchers (Omir Santos, Robinson Cancel) who managed to hit over their heads for a while.
Ronnie Paulino, provided he can come back strong and healthy from his health woes, has a career .338/.390/.491 batting line against left-handed pitchers, and looks like a really solid platoon partner for Thole. However, besides health, the question of his PED suspension also hangs in the air.
First baseman Ike Davis is never going to be a high average hitter, but he has the kind of power that is becoming more valuable in the post-Steroid era. Look for him to improve on the 19 HR he hit in his freshman season after shortening his swing this spring. I like his professional approach at the plate, willing to work the count and take the outside pitch to left center field. His glove is also a plus. With questions surrounding Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran coming into the year, a good season from Davis can help solidify the middle of the order.
At second, Rule 5 pickup Brad Emaus has shown the good plate discipline and decent power that was his reputation coming in. His defense this spring has been a little better than we were led to believe. I think he has a chance to be a decent player. Moreover, he represents the kind of intelligent acquisition that we're all hoping we'll see more of from this management team.
Jose Reyes hasn't been tearing the cover off the ball this spring, but he's looked pretty good -- healthy and ready for a bounce-back season. I don't know why there is a significant minority of the fan base that doesn't like Reyes. I've been watching this team for 40 years and I've never seen or more dynamic talent wearing a Mets uniform.
David Wright is focusing on being a good two-strike hitter again, and that would be a welcome change after amassing 300 strikeouts in the past two seasons. He's better than that. Only 28, he's beginning his eighth season with the Mets, and is deservedly the face of this club.
After being given a somewhat perfunctory shot at winning the 2B job, Daniel Murphy seems poised to play a super-sub type of bench role. Probably he will get some time spelling Emaus against RH pitching, and also backup Davis and Wright. He's also shown aptitude as a pinch hitter, hitting .317 /.396/ .537 with 2 HR and 12 RBI in 41 career AB.
Chin-lung Hu, acquired from the Dodgers this past winter, is a defensive wiz who will back at both 2B and SS. He'll give the fans a chance to chant "Huuuuuuuuuu" when he comes into games, but a.191/.241/.283 batting line in 173 major league AB don't offer promise of offensive contributions.
Farmhands Ruben Tejada, Justin Turner, Russ Adams and Luis Hernandez offer respectable infield depth just a phone call away.
LF Jason Bay needs to have a bounce back year or risk becoming the new scapegoat of boobirds. Starting the season on the DL doesn't help that cause. At 32, there is no reason to believe he is over the hill, and has impressed with his decent outfield play and good work ethic. He may not regain 30+ home run power in cavernous Citi Field, but should provide a solid mid-order bat.
CF Angel Pagan really emerged as a player last season, although he was also very good the previous year in an injury-shortened campaign. Always a great athlete, Pagan has also raised his baseball IQ by leaps and bounds. He just seems to have figured out exactly who he is as a player and is really comfortable with it. One of the better CF in the league, he'll steal some bases and hit with a little pop, too.
RF Carlos Beltran will require some workload managing on Terry Collins' part as those achy knees will be an ongoing concern. The Mets lineup will only be stronger the more games he's able to be a part of it, but enough time off will be crucial to avoid the long DL stints of the last two years. His bat looks good from what little we've seen, but running is clearly a concern.
Veteran backups Scott Hairston and Willie Harris are examples of Sandy Alderson's intelligent bargain shopping this winter. Both are coming off sub-par offensive seasons, but both are solid defenders with some offensive skills -- particularly Hairston with some power.
Lucas Duda will break camp with the club while Bay is recuperating from that strained rib muscle. He's got impressive power and did a nice job last year of hanging in after a horrendous start.
Fernando Martinez quietly had an excellent spring and provides some minor-league depth if he can avoid those injuries that always seem to derail him. Jesus Feliciano, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Jason Pridie are other possible emergency call-ups in Buffalo.
What strikes me most about the Mets roster heading into the season is how much stronger it looks than the teams they've broken camp with the last couple of years. When you consider the amount of ABs squandered last season on Jeff Francoeur, Alex Cora, Jesus Feliciano, Fernando Tatis and Mike Hessman, among others, it's hard not to see this team as improved offensively -- maybe even significantly if it goes well with Reyes, Bay and Beltran.
Combine this with the fact, at least to my eyes, that the rotation is solid and the bullpen seems stronger, and I just don't see this club finishing as bad as so many in the media seem to foresee. I think the manager is a huge step up, too. I think they're a .500 club with a chance to do better if breaks go their way a little. This isn't based on wishful thinking, either.
The biggest minus going into the season is Johan Santana. While he is certainly a huge loss, we're talking 11 wins here. I don't see a 7 or 8 win drop-off that so many pundits do. I suspect many of them are drinking each other's Kool Aide.
We'll be back later today to sum it all up.